Always Someone Turns Up: On Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas

Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. This is a refrain repeated frequently throughout Enrique Vila-Matas's novel Dublinesque. It is a line originally found in the “Hades” episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, and is used there to describe an unnamed “lankylooking galoot.” That nameless minor character in Ulysses is often given the title “the Man in the Macintosh,” and he has become quite a mystery in Joyce scholarship over the years. He shows up in Joyce’s novel a handful of times, but scholars have never been able to agree upon his identity. Yes, always someone turns up you never dreamt of; and sometimes just as quickly he vanishes, remaining a ghost, a mystery. Literature has always been fascinated with these uncanny entrances and exits, the comings and goings that in life are so commonplace, but that, on the printed page, we often imbue with such significance. It is in mysteries such as these -- in the catalogued coincidences and connections, the inquiries and epiphanies, that we seek out the patterns of life, create meaning in the chaos of existence, and confront and embody that Beckettian maxim: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” In the Internet age, after the heights of Joyce, and beyond the depths of Beckett, there is, it is sometimes argued, not much left to explore in literature. Story is suspect, for every story has already been told (or so the banal argument goes). Yet even if Enrique Vila-Matas can’t go on telling new stories, he’ll go on writing, mining the past to communicate the present; and we’re all the better off for it. The Spanish novelist is a master of that problematic enterprise of literature: the death-defying highwire act of telling the truth through lies, of invoking reality through fiction. In his newly translated novel, Dublinesque, successfully rendered into exquisite English by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, Vila-Matas treks across the literary landscape from Joyce to Beckett, from Gutenberg to Google, rubbing one allusion up against another, and colliding both fictive and actual worlds. Samuel Riba, the retired literary publisher who takes center stage in Dublinesque, is a character with an “exaggerated fanaticism for literature” who “has a tendency to read life like a literary text.” Therein lies a clue to reading the book: as the novel opens, life and text are already intertwined, confused, inseparable, and it only gets more complicated further on down the rabbithole. In his retirement (and sobriety), Riba has retreated further into himself, sitting in front of his computer, Googling things for hours on end, like a Japanese hikikomori. He only ever really leaves this position in front of his computer at the behest of his wife, with whom he has a strained relationship that is only being strained further as he turns more inward and she turns more toward Buddhism, or in order to visit his parents and keep up the pretense that he is still a literary publisher (as he has chosen not to clue them in on his retirement). It is in one of these awkward visits with his parents that the idea of traveling to Dublin emerges. Two years before the start of the novel Riba had a dream about that Irish city, and so when his mother accuses him of not having any plans, he “lets Dublin come to his rescue,” and makes up the lie that he’s been planning a trip there all along. Rather quickly he becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting that city of Joyce and Beckett, the Dedaluses and the Blooms, and mysterious men in macintoshes. He is determined to go to Dublin and, intentionally mirroring the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Joyce’s “Hades” episode, he will perform a funeral for the age of print, for “the Gutenberg galaxy,” as the digital age comes fully into being. In many ways, both physical and metaphysical, literal and metaphorical, Dublinesque is haunted by ghosts. But these ghosts take different forms, and most often they are in the form of allusions. As Joyce writes in Ulysses, and Vila-Matas reiterates in Dublinesque: What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners. Like the novel itself, Riba's head is filled with ghosts -- filled with the cobwebs of literary quotations, artistic allusions, bits of stories, trivia about the lives and works of authors and artists. Besides Joyce and Beckett, whose spirits remain a presence throughout the book, there are references to Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, George Perec, and Philip Larkin (whose poem "Dublinesque" provides the novel with its title), in addition to extensive mentions of the films of directors John Ford and David Cronenberg. These and many other artists haunt the book like specters. Riba's obsession with artistic and literary trivia may not be quite as all-consuming as it is for David Markson's Reader/Writer/Author/Novelist in Markson's final four novels (The Notecard Quartet: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel), but it is about on par. Indeed, David Markson seems like someone Riba would have wanted to add to his catalogue of published authors, had he not been retired: “Isn’t a literary publisher a ventriloquist who cultivates the most varied different voices through his catalogue?” Coincidences abound from the very beginning of the novel, as there are countless threads connecting his parents to the text of Ulysses. Riba -- and Vila-Matas- -- weave a tangled web of allusions and intersections between literature and life, between fiction and reality. This is typical Enrique Vila-Matas territory: in his novels, reality and fiction are forever blended. Real people populate their pages as often as fictional ones, and a confusion between the two always invokes problems. Like Montano in Montano's Malady, another Vila-Matas novel available in English translation, Samuel Riba has a kind of literature-sickness. Bloomsday, a holiday that the book focuses on, embodies this mix of fictive and real elements. After all, it is a holiday in the real world, but celebrated because on that day, in a novel, a fictional character, based on a real person, wanders around Dublin, a real city, which the author, Joyce, wanted to capture so perfectly that if the city were to be wiped off the face of the planet it could be recreated using his novel. There is no better holiday for an Enrique Vila-Matas novel to engage itself with. Furthering the insufficiency of reality, Riba constantly questions whether he is in a novel, dreading the possibility that he might be. He makes it abundantly clear at various points that “in no way does he want to live in a novel.” He may not want to be a character in literature but he keeps bringing up the possibility that he may very well be, a possibility he feels, even if he can’t quite explain it. Surely it would be useless to explain that he's not crazy, and that all that happens is that sometimes he senses or picks up too much, he detects realities no one else perceives. But Riba’s greatest dread, the ultimate disappointment in his life, is that he hasn't yet found the great writer of genius that he always assumed he would. Enter a mysterious figure. He first appears during the funeral procession for the Gutenberg era, and Riba deduces, with very little reasoning or evidence, that this must be the writer he has waited for his entire life. Is the figure Joyce’s “Man in the Macintosh?” Or is he a young Samuel Beckett? Or is he just a local Beckett lookalike? Or might the figure actually be a ghost with Dracula’s ability to disappear into a fog? Or could this man in fact be Vila-Matas himself- -- the author of Dublinesque and the creator of Riba? Appearing in his own novel, just as Vladimir Nabokov claims Joyce appeared in Ulysses as that “Man in the Macintosh?” Is it possible also that the macintoshed man is an embodiment of the “old whore” literature herself? In a way, this mysterious figure is all these things and more. There isn't a precise logic to it, it just makes sense in the confines of literature, which is a reflection and a refraction of life itself -- a thing full of mysteries, ultimately unexplainable. What logic is there in things? None really. We're the ones who look for links between one segment of our lives and another. But this attempt to give form to that which has none, to give form to chaos, is something only good writers know how to do successfully. If nothing else, Dublinesque secures the position of Enrique Vila-Matas on the list of writers who know how to give form to chaos. Just as he tells the story of the Gutenberg age giving way to the Google age, and catalogues a literary trajectory from Joyce to Beckett, Vila-Matas finds a perfect middle ground, the apex between these two pillars: Dublinesque reflects the sparseness of Beckett and the intricateness of Joyce, but more importantly it provides the mystery and depth of both. As two sides of the same coin, doppelgangers of one another in one way, and yet polar opposites from another vantage point, Joyce and Beckett show up through the text, finding a number of ways to haunt its pages. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of.

Fleeing Forward: On César Aira’s Varamo

César Aira is probably as known for the sheer volume of his literary output as he is for any individual masterpiece in his immense oeuvre. Aira publishes an average of two novels a year, in a career that has produced over 70 books, a staggering feat of perpetual fecundity. His newly translated novella Varamo takes place over the course of one evening in 1923, and follows the exploits of a government worker in Panama. After leaving his office with a pair of counterfeit bills received as his monthly salary, the novel’s eponymous character, through a series of uncanny circumstances that stem from the anxiety that the possession of the counterfeit currency engenders, ends up writing, in the hours before dawn, “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy.” Like some of those fabricated writers pulled from the South American air by Roberto Bolaño in Nazi Literature in the Americas or those fictional Bartleby’s that Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas created to accompany the real writers who preferred not to in Bartleby & Co., Aira’s Varamo has a story that seems too good to be true, and is. Varamo is a Kafkaesque civil servant and, in his spare time, an amateur embalmer -- but one thing he is not is a writer, for “never, in all his fifty years, had he written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry, nor would he ever again.” Though Varamo only creates one work of art, he does so feverishly, over the course of that evening, and thus embodies, if not Aira’s unending output, at least his method of fuga hacia adelante (which roughly translates to: “fleeing forward”). Aira’s fuga hacia adelante technique is a method of writing that avoids revision. What he has written remains, and the next day's task is to take what he wrote the previous day, and, whatever box he has written himself into, improvise a way out of by fleeing forward through propulsive improvisation. This concept of improvisation is central to Aira's work, and takes a thematic forefront in Varamo: Intending to be natural was, in itself, contradictory and self-defeating. In his case, it was condemned to failure from the outset, because if he intended to improvise his course of action, he would have to act as if he were really improvising, and at the same time he would, also, really be improvising, which was no more feasible than moving in two opposite directions at the same time. This is precisely what Varamo does: it moves in two opposite directions at the same time. The titular character’s inspired night, which begins, as only an Aira novel could, with counterfeit bills and an undead fish, and ends with an avant-garde poem, reads as an explication of the fuga hacia adelante method: In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections. And yet, throughout the book, it becomes obvious that Aira is not merely using Varamo’s story as a guidebook describing his literary method, but rather that Aira is mocking these radical ideas of textual production in the same sentences in which he is defending them. In addition to this complicated two-way view of textual production, Aira also posits an equivalent muddle of interpretative technique. As an improvised and counterfeit example of literary criticism (of a non-existent text by a fabricated writer), Varamo idealizes the notion that a true account of the producing mind can be discovered through a thorough reading of the text which that mind produced. Halfway into the 88-page novella, the narrator embarks on a lengthy aside, proclaiming that Varamo is “a work of literary history, not a fiction,” and explaining why the “free indirect style” is useful in his presentation of the “facts” of that evening in Varamo’s life: But our invasion of Varamo’s consciousness is not magical or even imaginative or hypothetical. It is a historical reconstruction. The difference is that we have presented it backwards, starting with the final results of our research. All the circumstantial details with which we have been coloring the story of the character’s day and making it credible have been deduced (in the most rigorous sense of the word) from the poem that he finally wrote, which is the only document that has survived. However, the obvious impossibility and imprecision of such a herculean task undermines this proposition, and instead of critical sincerity, humor pervades the pages. After all, how could it be that “all the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang?” Could a “true” history ever be created through interpretation by working backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang? It depends on a definition of the word “true,” as later a definition of the word “realism” becomes important in an interpretation of Varamo as well. Jorge Luis Borges and (Aira’s mentor) Osvaldo Lamborghini are the touchstones here, of course, but the most interesting influence may be found in the way the writing of Polish émigré Witold Gombrowicz, who lived nearly half his life in Aira’s home country of Argentina, sneaks into Aira’s internal landscapes. A reimagined Gombrowiczian obsessional fantasy underpins Aira's Varamo. Bolaño, who called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today,” also saw this Gombrowicz connection, writing: “His novels seem to put the theories of Gombrowicz into practice, except, and the difference is fundamental, that Gombrowicz was the abbot of a luxurious imaginary monastery, while Aira is a nun or novice among the Discalced Carmelites of the Word.” Varamo has been cast as a lesser work in relation to some of the other Aira already in English translation -- namely How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter -- and though this may be true, to overlook Varamo would be a mistake. As other great Spanish-language writers like Borges, Bolaño, and Vila-Matas have done, Aira shapes new worlds with his fiction -- but he does this in a unique style that is full of infinite possibility. As is written in Varamo, “Everything was possible, as in a world about to take shape.” Aira sees the world, and reality, in his own idiosyncratic way, and fashions the worlds of his books through the filter of that perspective, but as with all great writing, there is still an important component connecting it to reality, to “realism.” Though something like “free indirect discourse” may seem like a move toward the “magical,” and away from conventional realism, it is merely an attempt to get at a “truer” reality. This is the kind of “realism” we find in the novels of César Aira: Perhaps, said one, “the time has come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.